One of the key developments of late that has caused many to question the validity of at least some of the evangelicals who spoke in the LDS Tabernacle in Salt Lake City has to do with the fact that some, such as Richard Mouw of Fuller Seminary, have chosen, whether out of ignorance or hubris, to attack all of those who have ministered in proclaiming the gospel to Mormons for years and indeed decades. His comments in the Tabernacle were not only an implicit endorsement of the defensive posture of FARMS and others (can you hear them rejoicing?), but a blanket condemnation of anyone who would approach Mormonism as a false religion that condemns its followers with a false God, a false Christ, and a false gospel.
For the sake of context and for those who have not been following the discussion, Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California (yes, I graduated from Fuller in 1989 with an M.A. in Theology) was one of those who spoke in the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City recently. His comments were brief, but have set off a firestorm of response simply because he chose to follow the path laid out by Mosser and Owen: make friends with Mormon scholars by shooting in the head all those who have ministered to Mormons for years before you. It is evidently a successful strategy. Here is the key section of his comments:
On a personal level, over the past half-dozen years I have been a member of a small group of evangelical scholars who have been engaged in lengthy closed-door discussions about spiritual and theological matters with a small group of our LDS counterparts. We have not been afraid to argue strenuously with each other, but our arguments have been conducted in a sincere desire genuinely to understand each other-and in the process we have formed some deep bonds of friendship. I know that I have learned much in this continuing dialogue, and I am now convinced that we evangelicals have often seriously misrepresented the beliefs and practices of the Mormon community. Indeed, let me state it bluntly to the LDS folks here this evening: we have sinned against you. The God of the Scriptures makes it clear that it is a terrible thing to bear false witness against our neighbors, and we have been guilty of that sort of transgression in things we have said about you. We have told you what you believe without making a sincere effort first of all to ask you what you believe. We have made much of the need to provide you with a strong defense of traditional Christian convictions, regularly quoting the Apostle Peter’s mandate that we present to people like you a reasoned account of the hope that lies with in us-but we have not been careful to follow the same Apostle’s counsel that immediately follows that mandate, when he tells us that we must always make our case with “gentleness and reverence” toward those with whom we are speaking. Indeed, we have even on occasion demonized you, weaving conspiracy theories about what the LDS community is “really” trying to accomplish in the world. And even at our best, we have-and this is true of both of our communities-we have talked past each other, setting forth oversimplified and distorted accounts of what the other group believes.
Now, of course, the question is, who is the “we” for whom Mouw assumes to speak? It surely is not me, nor fine folks like Jerald and Sandra Tanner, or Bill McKeever. So who is it? Well, there surely have been those who have weaved conspiracy theories into their books. I have been openly and consistently critical of the excesses found in such books as God Makers II. I have criticized the sensationalism of many works produced on the subject of Mormonism, and have refused to engage in such behavior in the writing and publishing of two books on the subject, and in public debates with LDS apologists. But it seems clear that Mouw has fallen into the same trap that ensnared Dr. Blomberg not so long ago: that of thinking that LDS scholars at BYU define Mormonism. And because of this very narrow exposure to a very narrow spectrum of LDS belief, Mouw has denounced many who have a thousand times his experience and knowledge of Mormonism as having dishonestly misrepresented the Mormon people. Excuse us, please, if we point out that it is Dr. Mouw who owes the apologies here.
Nowhere does this come out more clearly than in a response Mouw has written in his own defense given the furor over his comments in the Tabernacle. Here we find a situation where, if LDS apologists are honest and open and above board, they will have to confess that it is Mouw who is ignorant of LDS theology and who is, in fact, operating on a very narrow, non-mainline foundation. Here we see, clearly, the result of ignoring the prophets and apostles and going on the basis of BYU professors as the definitive voice of Mormonism (a mistake being made by a number involved in the Johnson/Millet group). [N.B.: there is no question that the views of BYU and other scholars are important in looking ahead to developments in LDS theology: but BYU professors are not General Authorities, and it is simply ridiculous to ignore Salt Lake’s own assertions regarding what is, and what is not, authoritative so as to pick and choose what you will and will not allow to be “orthodox” Mormonism]. In trying to give examples of how evangelicals have “lied” about Mormons, he cites over-simplification in Walter Martin’s writings, and then specifically names Dave Hunt as well. And then he writes,
On a more technical point, I have received emails in the past few days where evangelicals have said that Mormonism teaches that God was once a human being like us, and we can become gods just like God now is. Mormon leaders have specifically stated that such a teaching, while stated by past leaders, is something they don’t understand and has no functioning place in present day Mormon doctrine. Bob Millet has made the same point to many of us, and Stephen Robinson insisted, in the book he co-authored with Craig Blomberg, that this is not an official Mormon teaching, even though it can be found in non-canonical Mormon writings. The Ostlings, in their book on Mormonism, reported that Mormon leaders insist that the idea that God is omnipotent, omniscience-and much unlike what we are or could ever be-is more accurate than the simple notion that we are all becoming gods like God the Father is. A number of LDS writers have been formulating the “becoming God” theme in terms that are common in Eastern Orthodoxy: that “we shall be like Him” in the sense of I John, but that we will never be Him.
Are there Mormons who today are embarrassed by the unified, consistent teaching of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and the LDS leadership all the way through Bruce R. McConkie on the topic of God’s status as an exalted man? Yes, there are. Is there the slightest question that it is official LDS theology that God was once a human being like us, and that we can become gods just like God now is? Most assuredly not. Mouw seems to believe Stephen Robinson and Bob Millet are the new Academic Prophets of Mormonism. I am sure Richard Mouw has been far too busy over the years to talk to literally thousands of believing LDS all over the Southwestern United States. But if he had done so, he would be in a far better position to speak to these issues. His very limited exposure has led him into clear and easily documented error.
I provided 76 pages of original source documentation on the LDS doctrine of God in my 1997 work, Is the Mormon My Brother? Unlike Dr. Mouw, I took the time to order the material in light of the official teachings of the LDS Church regarding their own view of authority, Scripture, and revelation (for some reason, BYU did not appear as an organ of revelation in their own writings). It is one of the most amazing displays of ignorance of primary sources I’ve seen for Dr. Mouw to make the claim that the “eternal law of progression,” the concept that man is the same species as God (those are the words of Stephen Robinson in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 2:548-550), the idea of progression and advancement, “has no functioning place in present day Mormon doctrine.” Such a statement should, if they would be willing to speak the truth, elicit a torrent of counter-documentation from LDS themselves, for their writings are filled with the centrality of this belief, not just historically, but today as well. Mouw does not understand the Temple, its rituals and its purpose. His knowledge is based solely upon his interaction with individual Mormons who represent the bleeding edge of Mormonism’s scholarship, a group of people intent upon seeing Mormonism accepted in the “mainstream,” and as such, not currently representative of the vast majority of believing, practicing, temple-going Latter-day Saints. Some believe that they represent the future of Mormonism. Maybe so. We, like the god of the Open Theists, cannot say. But that is hardly relevant to Mouw’s denunciation of the many ministries and ministers who have given so much over the years to present the gospel to the LDS people, for we cannot be held accountable for representing a Mormonism that does not yet exist! Mouw claimed that “we” have lied about the Mormons, and the example he provides in reality demonstrates that it is he, not “we,” who is misrepresenting the official teachings of the LDS Church, and that based upon his conclusion that BYU professors, not the General Authorities of the LDS Church past and present, define Mormonism.
From 1992 to 2001 the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints printed and published under the copyright of the Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a Student Manual titled Achieving a Celestial Marriage. This manual was used to introduce LDS to the concept of celestial marriage, its importance, and indeed, its centrality, to the LDS concept of a godly and proper life. It is beyond the realm of possibility that either Robinson or Millet could be ignorant of its existence. Surely, a student manual produced by the LDS leadership for the teachings of its own members regarding the central act of celestial marriage qualifies as having a “functioning place in present day Mormon doctrine” (even if some at BYU don’t think so). And what do we read in this manual? The beginning of the work says it all:
God was once a man who, by obedience, advanced to his present state of perfection; through obedience and celestial marriage we may progress to the point where we become like God.
Proclaiming the divine potential within man, John Taylor once wrote, “Knowest thou not that thou art a spark of Deity, struck from the fire of His eternal blaze, and brought forth in the midst of everlasting burnings.” (The Mormon, 29 Aug. 1857). Elder B.H. Roberts stated, “Man has descended from God; in fact, he is the same race as the Gods. His descent has not been from a lower form of life, but from the Highest Form of Life; in other words, man is, in the most literal sense, a Child of God. This is not only true of the spirit of man, but of his body also.” (Course of Study for Priests, 1910, p. 35). Can you see the implications of these two statements as they relate to you and to your eternal destiny? Elder James E. Talmage did. He declared, “…in his mortal condition man is God in embryo. However….any individual now a mortal being may attain the rank and sanctity of godship….” (Articles of Faith, p. 529). How is this possible? What course of action will bring this potential to fruition? As you study this lesson, look for the answers to these questions.
POINTS TO PONDER
God Became God by Obedience to Law
It was late afternoon as we sat in my office, but I felt the time had been well spent. He sat silently now, obviously contemplating the ramifications of the things we had been discussing. We had talked of God, of how he had become God, and of what that meant in terms of our own exaltation. Finally he spoke.
“What is this law of exaltation of which you keep speaking?”
“Well, it involves the whole of the gospel law. Everything required of us by God is associated with this law, but the major crowning point of the law which man must obey is eternal marriage. Therein lies the keys of eternal life, or, as the Doctrine and Covenants puts it, ‘eternal lives.’ In other words, an eternal increase of posterity.”
“Then what you’re saying is that God became God by obedience to the gospel program, which culminates in eternal marriage.”
Through Obedience to Law We Can Become Like Our Father in Heaven
“Yes. Do you realize the implications of this doctrine as far as you are concerned?”
“I think so. If God became God by obedience to all of the gospel law with the crowning point being the celestial law of marriage, then that’s the only way I can become a god.”
“Right. And it is the law that assists us in reaching that potential. It tells us what we must do to gain the ultimate freedom. In fact, it is by obedience to law that we have progressed to our present position.”
“You mean we have always been governed by law?”
“Always. You are an eternal being. You were never created and you cannot be destroyed, but you can advance, progress, and develop by obedience.
“Then Hamlet’s question ‘to be or not to be?’ is not the question?”
“Right, not in the ultimate sense, at least. Order means law, and that law is the law of the celestial kingdom. Any who come unto that kingdom must obey that law. (See D&C 88:24-29.)”
“But I thought godhood meant freedom. If I have to do things to become God, am I really free?”
“You have got it wrong. It was the Savior who said, ‘If ye continue in my word,’ that is, obey the law, ‘ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’ (John 8:31,32.) So by obedience to law, we learn truths by which we become free — but not free from the law. Can you see that?”
“I think so. I can be a god only if I act like God.”
“Exactly right. Can you imagine the state of the universe if imperfect gods were allowed to spawn their imperfections throughout space, if beings who did not have law under their subjection were free to create worlds?”
“I guess that would be pretty disastrous. But I’m not sure I see why celestial marriage becomes the crowning apex of this progression. Marriage doesn’t seem directly related to the creation of the universes.”
“Oh, but don’t be limited by your mortal perspective. God himself has declared his own reasons for existing. Remember, he said, ‘For this is my work and my glory….’ ”
“I see his purpose is ‘to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.’ ” (Moses 1:39).
“Which involves giving birth to spirit children and setting them on the road to exaltation. And if that is to be done, you must have an exalted man and…”
“An exalted woman.”
“Exactly, an exalted man and woman who have been joined together in an eternal marriage. If this man and woman were obedient to all gospel laws except celestial marriage, what would be the result?”
“They still could not be gods. Now I understand. Celestial marriage is the crowning ordinance of the gospel.”
“Right,” I said with a smile. “And with that comment I think we can end the discussion.”
One hardly need expand upon such statements, but some others in the work include:
The gospel of Jesus Christ teaches that man is an eternal being, made in the image and likeness of God. It also holds that man is a literal child of God and has the potential, if faithful to divine laws and ordinances, of becoming like his heavenly parent. These truths are generally well understood by Latter-day Saints….Less well understood, however, is the fact that God is an exalted man who once lived on an earth and underwent experiences of mortality. The Prophet Joseph Smith refers to this as “the great secret.” (Times and Seasons5:613 [15 Aug. 1844]. See also Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 345.) The progression of our Father in heaven to godhood, or exaltation, was strictly in accordance with eternal principles, “for he who is not able to abide the law of a celestial kingdom cannot abide a celestial glory.” (D&C 88:22.)…By definition, exaltation includes the ability to procreate the family unit throughout eternity. This our Father in heaven has power to do. His marriage partner is our mother in heaven. We are their spirit children, born to them in the bonds of celestial marriage.
The Lord would have all his children attain exaltation, but men must have their agency. Only those who subscribe by ordinance and by faithful adherence to covenant are worthy of “a continuation of the seeds forever and ever.” (D&C 132:19.)
This section is followed by one titled “God was once a mortal man,” and again, we find the LDS Church falling back, not upon her Scriptures to teach her people, but the King Follett Funeral Discourse. Subtitles include “He Lived on an Earth Like Our Own” and “He Experienced Conditions Similar to Our Own and Advanced Step by Step.” This is followed by another section, “God is Now an Exalted Man with Powers of Eternal Increase,” with a subtitle, “Our Father in Heaven Lives in an Exalted Marriage Relationship.” Under this section Melvin J. Ballard is quoted:
No matter to what heights God has attained or may attain, he does not stand alone: for side by side with him, in all her glory, a glory like unto his, stands a companion, the Mother of his children. For as we have a Father in heaven, so also we have a Mother there, a glorified, exalted, ennobled Mother.” (Melvin J. Ballard, as quoted in Bryant S. Hinckley, Sermons and Missionary Services of Melvin J. Ballard, pp. 205-6.)
Now, again, it is not necessary, for those who have studied the writings of the LDS leadership, to belabor the point. Those who know Mormonism know how vitally central to LDS theology the entire concept of progression and exaltation is. Just one other quote, this time from one of the sources Mouw relied upon, Stephen Robinson, from the above cited article in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism:
The Father, Elohim, is called the Father because he is the literal father of the spirits of mortals (Heb. 12:9). This paternity is not allegorical. All individual human spirits were begotten (not created from nothing or made) by the Father in a premortal state, where they lived and were nurtured by Heavenly Parents. These spirit children of the Father come to earth to receive mortal bodies; there is a literal family relationship among humankind. Joseph Smith taught, “If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves” (TPJS, p. 343). Gods and humans represent a single divine lineage, the same species of being, although they and he are at different stages of progress. This doctrine is stated concisely in a well-known couplet by President Lorenzo Snow: “As man now is, God once was: as God now is, man may be” (see Godhood). . . . The important points of the doctrine for Latter-day Saints are that Gods and humans are the same species of being, but at different stages of development in a divine continuum, and that the heavenly Father and Mother are the heavenly pattern, model, and example of what mortals can become through obedience to the gospel (see Mother in Heaven).
Finally, Mouw notes the use of terms like “omniscient” and “omnipresent” in the writings of LDS scholars today. Once again, even a few meetings with the faithful of Mormonism would have helped him to understand that Mormons use our terminology without adopting our meaning. When a Mormon speaks of “eternal lives” they are speaking of God’s power of procreation—a far cry from what an evangelical means when we speak of “eternal life.” And the careful reader of the above citation from Achieving a Celestial Marriage will note the presence of the term “universes,” rather than our normal “universe.” When it comes to omniscience, possibly Stephen Robinson could have explained to Mouw his use of the term in The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, where, after stating that “Latter-day Saints perceive the Father as an exalted Man in the most literal, anthropomorphic terms” (2:548) he wrote, “Latter-day Saints also attribute omnipotence and omniscience to the Father. He knows all things relative to the universe in which mortals live and is himself the source and possessor of all true power manifest in it. This is part of what it means to be exalted, and this is why human beings may safely put their faith and trust in God the Father, an exalted being” (2:549). Does Mouw really wish to suggest that omniscience of a limited category (this particular universe over which Elohim rules, but not all universes where the multitude of previously exalted LDS gods rule) is parallel to Christian belief in omniscience?
Mouw’s statements are unscholarly because, ironically, they represent the view of so much of the “academy” today. The irony is that many in academia today consider apologetics beneath them. They view it as an unscholarly arena that anyone can master in a brief period of time. What is there really to know about Mormonism anyway? Who needs to read all those dusty books? The BoM is hardly worth the time of a true scholar to study! Read the Ensign? Stand upon a street corner and dialogue with LDS missionaries? There are ETS papers to prepare and inter-faith dialogues to promote! All one must do is have lunch with some colleagues (please note the term!) from BYU and you will be up to speed in no time! So, a methodology that would be dismissed instantly in any other field (personal anecdotes as a foundation for determining the theology of a religion rather than the published statements of the official leadership) is utilized here because, as all true academics know, apologetics does not require work and study over time. It is not like being a New Testament scholar or something really challenging like that!
Let’s make sure we are very clear on what has taken place here. A rather liberal evangelical scholar, president of a rather liberal evangelical seminary, has become acquainted with some rather liberal (in the LDS spectrum of things) LDS scholars. As a result of this interaction, he has joined other evangelicals in speaking in the LDS tabernacle (a truly unusual opportunity, to be sure). Despite having little or no first hand knowledge of LDS theology proper, let alone knowledge gained from the practical interaction that comes with doing apologetics on a regular basis over time, Dr. Mouw has chosen to denigrate, based upon his own ignorance of the issue, all of those who have sacrificed and ministered in the preceding years and decades to seek to bring the gospel to that very same city and to the very audience to whom he was speaking. In doing so, he did inestimable damage, but primarily to those Mormons who will not hear a clarion call to believe because those who would have been used to deliver it are so discouraged they do not make the effort any longer, or, because those LDS involved in seeking to hinder the proclamation of the gospel to the Mormons use his comments (as they have used so many evangelicals over the past few years, either willingly or deceptively) to create another barrier to the truth.
Now, I need to mention at this point that many of the evangelicals who have aided the Mormons in blunting the call to repentance and faith insist that the beliefs of the bleeding edge of liberal Mormon scholarship are, in fact, the future of Mormonism, and that given the changes we have seen in emphasis and approach in the past three decades or so, we should no longer see the General Authorities as defining Mormonism, but the left wing of BYU. We surely have seen major changes in Mormonism’s marketing of itself over the past decades. Its growth has slowed, and many see some real weakness in a closer look at the numbers. The missionary approach has changed as well. Mormonism’s core is extremely susceptible to post-modernism and we may well be seeing the result. We do not know where Mormonism is going to end up in thirty or forty years. All of these things are quite true, but they also have precious little to do with the current situation in regard to Mouw’s statements. He “apologized” for what has taken place in the past. He gave as an example the accurate, proper presentation of the past and current LDS doctrine of God, derived from LDS sources. If Mormonism someday adopts a different view of God (to its epistemological destruction), then it will be necessary to accurately represent that new view. But this has not yet happened. So, in the past, it has not been Richard Mouw who has accurately represented LDS beliefs, but myself and the Tanners and Bill McKeever and everyone else who has labored for decades to bring the message of Christ to the Mormons. We cannot be held accountable to represent a Mormonism that does not yet exist: we can only speak to what is officially taught now, and that by those who are the representatives of their religion (not by our choosing, but by the choice of the LDS Church itself). I will thank Dr. Mouw to apologize to the LDS people for himself, not for those of us who have taken the time to actually study the writings of the leaders of the LDS faith, understand their beliefs, and accurately represent them. We have done so because you cannot proclaim the true God and the true Christ and the true gospel over against Mormonism’s falsehoods while lacking truth in your understanding and representation of their beliefs.
The past number of years have been very hard on the LDS people. Radical, wild-eyed KJV Only “street preachers” have spewed hatred at them, ending all meaningful witness at the Conference. Reputation seeking evangelicals have handed their souls to FARMS and done inestimable damage as a result. And now, even as the reports of Ravi Zacharias’ comments have been mainly positive, he has to be preceded and followed by this kind of outlandish commentary. I truly pray God will place upon the hearts of His people to share the life-giving message of the true God with the LDS people in the regular pathways of life, for it seems that He has closed many of the former means of reaching them in our day.